In 1987, the Guyana Prize for Literature was established by the late President Desmond Hoyte. It has remained the most prestigious literary award in Guyana and the Caribbean.

“Its aim is to promote, encourage and reward the generation of good literature in Guyana in particular and the Caribbean in general,” its website states.

In a report published by the Stabroek News earlier this week, Minister of Social Cohesion Dr. George Norton, who has responsibility for culture, disclosed that the feasibility of continuing the prize is to be examined.

Early last year, there was a call for entries for the Guyana Prize for Literature. To date, even a shortlist has not been produced. In January, I enquired and it was alleged that the new minister responsible for the Department of Culture, Dr. Norton, was unaware that the ministry was to provide the funds for the prize.

Now that the viability of the prize is being examined, several questions linger: Before the call was made for entries, were the powers that be not informed about what the prize entails and its purpose, since they seem ignorant about these facts? Why make a call if the funds were not budgeted for? How was the prize funded under the previous government? And given that the Guyana Prize for Literature has existed for thirty-one years, how could a minister of government now be questioning its place in our society?

But perhaps his questions are valid as there have been allegations about irregularities surrounding the prize in previous years. One such concern was that there was no rule barring former judges from entering the competition. As a result, previous judges have entered the competition and won on several occasions. There have also been concerns about how some past winners have been treated, including the prize not affording them opportunities to share their skills and work. These issues are no fault of the writers but the management of the Guyana Prize for Literature.

That being said, there should be no question about continuing the prize, only about how to fix its shortcomings. We cannot destroy every opportunity of promoting and nurturing Guyanese literature.

As a past winner, what can I say the Guyana Prize has done for my writing career? Did opportunities result from the prize? Yes. My winning play was staged at Carifesta in Haiti in 2015. It was a rewarding experience to test my work on a regional stage and receive positive feedback. My direct involvement with the Guyana Prize for Literature did not extend far beyond that. I had already established a writing career, starting with the radio serial drama Merundoi seven years before winning the prize. However, the prize boosted my confidence and I was encouraged to continue evolving as a writer.

Until now, I chose to remain mostly silent on the issues surrounding the prize. This was not because I am not as disappointed as other writers, or because I am not concerned about upcoming writers having little or no opportunities to develop their skills. It is simply that the demands of life mean I do not have the time to fixate on the disregard that is being shown for writers at this time. I became tired of the constant fight for the rights of creative people in this country. The powers that be were not going to liken my value or my struggle to that of a desperate starving artist who needed to cry for a few dollars. I am too gifted, too proud of who I am and too aware of how much there is to enjoy in life rather than to spend my time angry, distressed or frustrated. I am not desperate, nor am I starving, nor do I need to cry for a few dollars. It is not anyone’s responsibility to rescue or save me. I am my own saviour through the choices I make. I believe in setting goals, working to achieve those goals and using the power of the mind to stay focused.

While I assert that we must not accept insults as creatives, and that the struggle must continue until we are given the due respect and our work is valued, at some point one must do what is best for their own sanity and happiness. The struggle will continue, but it cannot succeed if it is dependent on one or two individuals; we must come together as one body and unfortunately that is what is often lacking in the creative community.

The minister questioned if the competition is worth the large investment. He also stated that if the competition was not achieving its goal of encouraging young writers, then measures will be put in place. A glimmer of hope, perhaps?

However, when one looks at the history of the Guyana Prize for Literature, not all the winners were young people. The prize is open to all Guyanese and for most writers it would take years to develop their craft to the point of winning a Guyana Prize for Literature. Of course, there have been very young people who would have won. Ruel Johnson, who won in 2002, was twenty-two at the time and Subraj Singh, who won in 2015, is in his twenties. When I entered for the first time in 2013 and was awarded the prize for Best Drama, I was 30.

However, there are also writers like Harold Bascom, Ian McDonald and David Dabydeen who have won in recent years.

The report also stated that the government is not intent on making such large investments without the desired returns. But one could conclude that with all the questions now being asked that even they do not know what the desired returns should be.

Are Guyanese writers not worthy of having millions of dollars invested in a prize to reward their work every two years? With prizes of US$3,000 and US$5,000, the winners are not making a fortune off this competition.

It must be stated unequivocally that writers who win the Guyana Prize for Literature are not talentless slackers who wait around hoping to collect a ‘raise’ from the government every two years for doing nothing. I wish the minister would call the creative writers together so that he can be informed about what goes into our work. When a writer spends a year, two years or more working on a book or a play, is there any amount of money that can compensate for the research, the talent and the skill in crafting that work? Is there any price that can pay for the value of intellectual property?

The Guyana Prize for Literature should be restructured. Government should not be asking what returns it is receiving from the prize at this point, it should be asking what it can do to develop, promote and nurture Guyanese writers. After all, that’s what governments are in place for: to create opportunities for the people in all callings so that they can better their lives and achieve their goals. If you give the people nothing, there is nothing they can give you in return.

President Hoyte saw the value in Guyanese literature. I hope his legacy is not erased because we are being governed by people who either do not know, cannot appreciate the value and purpose of Guyanese literature, or just do not care about giving it the distinction it deserves.  

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